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Arsene Wenger’s Moneyball Strategy

wenger Arsene Wenger’s Moneyball Strategy

When Michael Lewis published Moneyball in 2003, it instantly became one of the most influential books about American sports in a generation.  Michael Lewis, normally a financial writer, analyzed how baseball’s Oakland A’s managed to consistently produce highly competitive teams despite a payroll that was a fraction of their biggest rivals.  From 1999 -2006, the A’s finished either first or second in their division, and won over 100 games in both 2001 and 2002.  They won more games than any team in baseball other than the Yankees during that period, but had one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.

The protagonist in Moneyball was A’s general manager Billy Beane, who looked at potential baseball players in a completely different way from other GMs.  From Lewis’ perspective, Beane was doing what any good executive should do – trying to bring rationality to a completely irrational market.  Beane saw that the market for high-end free agents was over-inflated, and the rational tools (primarily baseball statistics) for properly valuing players were underutilized.  Beane was able to use those tools to find outstanding players that were completely overlooked by other teams at a fraction of their market cost.

It would be difficult for Football managers to mimic Beane’s methods in their player selection.  Beane relied far more on stats than on scouting to make his decisions, and football does not have the same voluminous stats to hand over to some PhD to find hidden gems.  However, there is one manager who has replicated Beane’s unconventional thinking and has consistently produced winning teams for a fraction of what his rivals spend – Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger.

Arsenal has finished in the top four every year for the past decade, and under Wenger has collected three Championships, six FA Cups, and went undefeated for the 2003-2004 EPL season.  He has done this while spending a small fraction of what his rivals have spent in the transfer market.  If you add up all of Wenger spending since he joined the team in 1996 and subtract his sales in the transfer market over that time, his net expenditures are a measly £17 million – less than £2 million per year.  Among the legendary players that Wenger has bought at a fraction of their market value are:

Patrick Vieira – £3.50 million
Robin van Persie – £2.75 million
Freddie Ljungberg – £3.00 million
Sol Campbell – 0 (free transfer)
Nicolas Anelka – £0.50 million
Cesc Fabregas – 0 (signed as youth)
Kolo Toure – £0.15 million
Thierry Henry – £10.50 million

As recently as this calendar year, Wegener seems to have strengthened his team by selling Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor for £39 million and buying Thomas Vermaelen and Andrei Arshavin for £25 million.  When you consider that Arshavin cost Arsenal significantly less than what Liverpool spent on Glen Johnson, it really does seem like Wenger is attacking the market in a completely different way than his peers.  So how does this manager, who not coincidently has a Masters Degree in Economics, maneuver so well in a completely irrational marketplace?

While Beane had some basic rules in analyzing players (value walks as much as hits, discount achievements made in high school, foot speed is overrated, body shape is meaningless, etc.), Wenger has not been so kind as to sit down with an author and lay out his techniques.  However, looking over his career at Arsenal, you can come to see Wenger’s own Moneyball strategy.  These rules include:

Never buy a star from the EPL, La Liga or Serie A.  In fact, try to avoid buying players from these leagues that are in the starting XI of their team.  The market has already overinflated their value and you wind up paying too much.  There have only been a small handful of players that Wenger has plucked from these leagues, (not counting Sol Campbell on a free transfer and William Gallas as the ballast for the Ashley Cole deal), and two of his biggest transfer blunders (Francis Jeffers and Jose Reyes) have come via this route.  Wenger, who has never paid more than £15 million for a player (but has sold a handful for more than £25 million), sees all big stars as drastically over-valued whose price has been driven up by teams like Chelsea and Real Madrid for whom money is no obstacle.  Even if Chelsea or Real Madrid is not interested in the “massive” league player you are looking at, their buying power has artificially inflated that player’s costs.

Instead, look for great players in lesser leagues.  Big bargains can be found in the Dutch Eredivisie, the Bundesliga, French Ligue 1, the Russian league and many other leagues that do not regularly broadcast their games into English managers’ living rooms.  If the French, Dutch, German and Russian national teams are good, it should stand to reason that their domestic leagues should contain some of their future stars.  Scouting these “lesser” leagues like the Swedish league (Ljungberg), Eredivisie (van Persie, Vermaelen, Overmars), Bundesliga (Rosicky, Lehman, Hleb), and Croatian League (Eduardo) can yield cheap gold.  This is especially true in the French League, with its high emphasis on skill training and its low popularity in the European football world.  Wenger has mined France for a wealth of talent over the year, including Manu Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Gael Clichy, and Bacary Sagna among others.

Of course, to find these gems, you must scout them.  Wenger has spent money to create the most detailed, professional scouting network of any team in the world.  While most major clubs rely on youtube as their main scout, Wenger and his Chief Scout Steve Rowley have built an extensive network which scours Europe and the world looking at players in obscure places dozens of times before making a move.  There is no team too minor for this network.  Gael Clichy was discovered and signed playing for AS Cannes in France’s 3rd division.  Arsenal even employs a full time scout in the US looking for the next opportunity.  Wenger firmly believes that every great player started off somewhere obscure, and if he can find those players before they become valuable, the savings will pay for this scouting network many times over.

Once you scout them and sign them, you must train them.  Arsenal’s investment in training is massive.  Their London Colony training ground, built under Wenger’s close supervision, is state of the art and has become the training ground for the English National Team.  From strength and fitness training to nutrition to the best video room set-up in England, Wenger has spared no expense in creating a facility to pour the skill into his hidden gems.  Moreover, Wenger is notorious for integrating young players into the first team training at very young age.  Fabregas has repeatedly talked about the experience of being a 15 year old trainee playing alongside Patrick Vieira every day in training.

Few teams want to invest in this type of scouting and training effort.  It costs millions of pounds to build and maintain this system, and most teams are content to use that money to chase some well-known player from a major team.  Yet, from Wenger’s perspective, this investment is cheap.  Take just one player as an example.  Kolo Toure was discovered in Africa and bought for £150,000.  On the training ground, he was converted from a holding midfielder to a central defender.  He spent two seasons learning his craft spending every day on a professional-style pitch at the Colony playing against Henry, Bergkamp and the rest of the Arsenal scorers.  He then served six outstanding seasons as part of the Arsenal starting XI before being sold for £14 million, an increase of 9333% from his original purchase price.  That one player, and his profit of £13.85 million, more than pays for the training ground and scouting network alone. 

Thus, when a team like Liverpool spends £20 million for a known commodity like Robbie Keane and sells him again him six months later for £12 million, Wenger must shake his head in wonder.  The loss on Keane could pay for a scouting network that would unearth several Robbie Keane’s over the next few years for a small fraction of what the Reds spent on Keane in the first place. 

So why doesn’t every team follow Wenger’s economic model?  In baseball, many teams copied Beane’s system to great affect (and to the determent of the A’s, which have not been as successful since Moneyball was published).  Luckily for Wenger, the market for managers is just as irrational as it is for players.  The Wenger system takes an investment of time as well as money that does not immediately create wins, and few teams seem willing to give their managers either of those things.  Wenger had the good fortune to be hired by Arsenal vice-Chairman David Dein, a man who made his money as a commodities trader and who understood the utility of finding hidden value in the market.   After winning the double in his first full year and profiting over £25 million in the forced sale of Anelka to Real Madrid, the Arsenal board gave Wenger carte blanche to set up this system and has had the patience (like any good investor) to avoid panicking when the results have dipped a little.

As Wenger looks for his third great team at Arsenal to finally be ready to battle for the big trophy, other mangers must wonder how he does it.  But they don’t wonder too hard.  They do not want to be distracted from their main task – badgering their board to free up money to buy the next big name that comes on the market.

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19 Responses to Arsene Wenger’s Moneyball Strategy

  1. Gooner 48 says:

    Interesting article about an interesting man and a more than interesting player trading concept. What makes Wenger really special amongst managers however is that he’s one of the very few who takes the long-term view. Who else other than Fergusmoan does this? Indeed which other clubs can claim to do so?

    • Zola612 says:

      “What makes Wenger really special amongst managers however is that he’s one of the very few who takes the long-term view.”

      Indeed it is important to take the long-term view when you are a “big 4″ club and go trophy-less season after season. You need a long-term view to see the the past glory. :)

  2. AtlantaPompey says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Most teams don’t have the patience to adopt a long term view. In this ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-now’ society we live in, it’s not easy to do that. His degree in economics is a major factor in his approach, as is his willingness to ignore the calls for his head that have started recently due to a lack of trophies.

    Another point in comparing Wenger’s approach to American baseball is that the minor league system in America allows players to grow and develop and compete against their peers, learning their craft and advancing based upon their skill level and the needs of their organization. Teams that had long runs of success always had a well-stocked minor league system from which to draw talented young players to fill out roles on the major league team or to use as trade bait to acquire pieces of the puzzle from other teams. Many of the problems of the recent NY Yankees have been a depleted farm system and the inability to consistently buy great talent on the free agent market. The 1991 Atlanta Braves won the National League with many of the players that had won in each level of the minor leagues together. Add a few pieces to the puzzle, such as a Terry Pendleton, and you instantly have a winner. They went on to have 14 years of division titles based on their ability to constantly, and sometimes cheaply, fill spots on the major league roster with talented players from their farm system.

  3. The Gaffer says:

    I recently read Moneyball for the first time and was impressed, even though I don’t have one iota of appreciation for baseball (sorry guys). But if you’re interested in listening to the audiobook of Moneyball, get it as one of your two free audiobooks from Audible when you sign up for the platinum plan at http://epltalk.com/audible

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  4. Jon says:

    Eric, one of the most insightful articles I have read on EPLTalk. Very well written and articulate. How much of this system and network do you think is attributable to a “Cult of Personality” around Wenger, and how much do you think can transition with the club as a permanent part of its structure?

    Recently, there has been a reasonable amount of discussion about Wenger’s successor. As an Arsenal fan, I’d like to see “Le Prof” around for a long time still, but the reality is that eventually, sooner or a decade from now, Arsene will want to call it a day and leave the club. When that sad day finally comes and Arsenal must replace the irreplacable, do you think that the system Arsene has set up – training methods and scouting networks – will continue, or will it fall by the wayside as the new manager reverts to that other spend-happy managerial style?

  5. Eddie says:

    While it is an interesting comparison, I would say there are a few differences. First off, baseball is ridiculously statistics-driven, whereas futbol is not.

    Also, aren’t all managers (except for Chelsea and now Man City) really attempting to uncover these players from “lesser” leagues. It’s not exactly unknown that players are groomed well in the Dutch league. Isn’t it more just the case that Wenger is better at evaluating talent?

    While Beane was smart to take such an approach, his market dictated that. The A’s do not have a really big fan base. If you go see them play against the Yankees or Red Sox, half the stadium will be rooting for the visiting team. Their average attendance also is realtively weak. This is clearly not the case with Arsenal, who can spend the money if they wish.

    Also, Billy Beane, for all of the praise and notoriety he has received has never won a championship. So, perhaps he has shown how to overachieve with lesser-known players, but he certainly hasn’t shown how you can win it all. Wenger already has shown he can do it. Maybe Lewis should write a book about him next.

  6. Great insight and an interesting read. Just wanted to compliment the effort.

    CD

  7. GRP says:

    Good piece, nice insights. However, Wenger HAS been so kind as to sit down with an author and lay out his techniques (Alex Fynn, see his book Arsenal at amazon,e.g., http://bit.ly/elTI7 — it’s a great book).

    And I was going to dispute the Bundesliga as being off the radar, but indeed we got Lehmann for 1.25m pounds from B. Dortmund which is pretty cheap for a top keeper.

    p.s. a few typos: London Colony should be London Colney; determent -> detriment

  8. b says:

    good article. always enjoy reading about the professor.

    but a couple of comments. first, your summary of moneyball and billy beane’s strategies repeats a common misunderstanding of beane’s point. it wasn’t that walks were more important than hits, it was that they were undervalued. the same went for college pitchers vs. high school pitchers, etc. oakland is a small market team without much payroll. so beane had to find value to compete. and now that other teams have realized that these players are undervalued, beane has had to move on to finding new areas to exploit. which has proven to be harder.

    but this is the same thing wenger has been doing. he doesn’t buy random belarusians just because he thinks they’re better, it’s that they’re undervalued.

    also, i wonder just how much he relies on statistics to make his decisions. i know soccer stats are a different animal than baseball stats, but i’ve seen many a press conference where wenger can spout some pass efficiency stat like he has them memorized. so i wonder what other stats he’s keeping to himself. beane being involved in that book and giving away all of his secrets was probably the biggest mistake of his GM career.

  9. hal says:

    A good read! Nice article, very informative.

  10. Eric Altshule says:

    Jon-

    Interesting question about the “cult of personality” issue. I would argue that if the Arsenal board does it job well and prepares for Wenger’s successor, there is no reason this system cannot be carried out by a future manager. When you have a system with rules and guidelines, it is much easier to pass it along to the next management team. Frankly, I think Man U will have a much tougher time replacing Alex Ferguson, which is a true “cult of personality” situation (i.e. the team’s personality is directly derived from their manager’s), than Arsenal will have replacing Wenger.

    b –

    I do think Wenger relies on statistics as much as any manager. I have seen him quoted about his “addiction” to football stats. In fact, I found an interesting article on that here:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/matt_dickinson/article3479458.ece

    That being said, no game produces stats like baseball. The data is far easier to gather, more empirical, and more comprehensive. Baseball stats can tell you a lot about a player you have never seen play. Football stats are not nearly as revealing.

  11. Really? says:

    1. Uh, many of the players you list are far too young and inexperienced to list as bargains (Vermalen, etc.). They may well be, but many of them were NOT cheap (Vermalen and Arshavin come to mind).

    2. I don’t know what Fergie bought Ronaldo for, but it was a lot less than what he sold for.

    3. What has Arsenal won lately? What good is Wenger’s plan if they finish 3 or 4 every year. What’s the phrase, “flatter to deceive”?

    4. If Billy Beane had the money, he’d buy better players. Look at Boston, who basically employ a similar theory but have much, much more money. Boston has been very successful – Oakland not so much. Arsenal is not Oakland. They Boston acting like Oakland (and getting Oakland’s results). Why is Wenger praised for this? His job is to win and he isn’t winning. Great if it was Aston Villa, but Arsenal?

    5. Last time I checked, Chelsea and ManU were ahead of Arsenal and had been for many years. As well as Wenger has done in purchasing players, has he done well enough to truly compete? No.

    • Really? says:

      Ronaldo was bought for £12 million and sold for £80 million. A £68 million net. Not bad. Of course, ManU didn’t replace him and are now struggling (sound familiar Arsenal).

    • b says:

      “1. Uh, many of the players you list are far too young and inexperienced to list as bargains (Vermalen, etc.).”

      I love this. You say “many” then list one, but put an “etc” behind it as if that suggests there are many others. But looking at the list again, there really aren’t.

      As for point #3, this is really the only one that matters. Wenger has said this is the year his rebuilding plan was to start showing results. Arsenal is in a much more stable financial situation than any club in the world. And now that the younger players are starting to play in the first team, the revolving carousel of replacements can begin.

      If Flamini would’ve been a little more patient and stuck this team would be much stronger. Same for Hleb and Reyes.

      But it would be overstating to say that Arsenal hasn’t competed. Semi-finals in Champions League last year? Finals a couple years before that? And this season they’re basically one Diaby own goal and a soft penalty at West Ham away from the top of the table.

      Chelsea got smoked by Wigan and Man U has been pretty mediocre. We’ll see how things stand at the end of the season.

  12. Oleg says:

    Excellent, excellent article!

  13. ish says:

    yes wenger is a good manager but the trick is spends quite a bit outside the official transfer market and those numbers dont get listed(appearance, goal and trophy bonuses).

    That and like nearly everything else in the world, buying players is a exponential curve. A shit tv might cost $200, a good tv costs $1000 and a great tv costs $10k. Yet the difference between the good and great tv might be a 5% better difference while the difference between the good and shit is a 500% difference.
    Same with players sure you can make a great team for a modest sum but only if you dont want to be the best, that 5% difference between good and great might win you the champions league.
    Arsenal’s system is sound but look at their midfield, goalkeeping and depth. if they spent 50 million fixing that up do you not think they would have a better chance of winning things? That one risk might pay off if they win the league and CL or something not only appeasing fans but bringing in prestige and money which could very well reduce the debt more then the 50 million initial outlay.

  14. BuzzyBuzz says:

    I guess it depends on if you think (i) five years is a long time, and (ii) trophies are the only measure of success; Wenger doesn’t seem to on either count and therefore he is quite content to play the game, both on and off the field, the way he wants. As a gooner I am, and always have been, 100% happy with AW’s commitment, desire and plans for the club and would further suggest that he has been an unimpeachable success in making us both a sporting and financial success. If that’s cult-like, then pass the kool-aid; I hope I’m sipping on it for another decade.

  15. Henry says:

    soccer fitness training is very essential for any soccer player even if he is blessed with the ultimate talent.

  16. mike lt says:

    arsene would do great as the development coach of manchester united, when things go wrong on the field fegurson usually has the remedy to fix it,whilst arsene does not have this talent. if a team is playing well (defending) and things arent going well for arsenal,arsene rarely has an idea how to change that for the better, so thats why i say he would do great in the manchester united development(as head coach)

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